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Athletes Are Human

Before I begin my newsletter, I would like to wish everyone a happy holiday season. I would also like to invite you to check out my revised, new website, www.winnersunlimited.com.
This past Saturday morning a terrible tragedy happened in Kansas City. Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, Javon Belcher murdered his girlfriend at their residence and then drove to the Chiefs training facility at Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide. This murder/suicide left their three-month old daughter, an orphan and numerous questions about why and how this could happen. Unfortunately, murders and suicides happen at an alarmingly high rate in the United States, and all too often happen amongst young adults in their 20’s and 30’s. Over the past week, much has been speculated and written about why and how Belcher could have committed such a terrible act. Many peoples lives were affected, not only the families of both, but many in the world of sports. Although deaths like this occur way too often, this has been highly publicized because Belcher was a professional football player. Talk shows, blogs and the internet have been full of discussions about gun control, domestic violence and mental health. All of these topics are pertinent towards what happened. Apparently, Belcher and his girlfriend had been arguing frequently about their relationship and finances. The Chiefs had offered counseling for both, but according to statements made by Belcher, it wasn’t helping. Each month I write a newsletter that usually focuses on sport psychology. However, this month I want to focus a little deeper on psychology. As I have stated numerous times, I have loved sports all my life, as a participant, fan, parent, coach and as a sport psychologist. We have discussed the roles athletes, parents, coaches, fans and officials have in this newsletter for the past six years. But in the end, no matter how talented an athlete you may be, no matter how well you perform under pressure, no matter how motivated you are to succeed, you are still a human being with a wide array of emotions. I have frequently stated that you can have two athletes of equal physical skills, but the one with the stronger mind will usually come out on top. All too often, many athletes are able to skirt the rules because they are a good athlete. I have worked with many collegiate and professional athletes over the years who have been able to accomplish a lot because of their physical abilities, but mentally are far behind the norm. They have gotten by because they were good at sports. Coaches and teachers have commonly given them a free pass in class and in life because they were good at sports. In my opinion, when we let them get by because they are physically gifted, we may be cheating them by not teaching them life’s more important lessons, related to respect, honesty and an understanding of dealing with your emotions, positive or negative. An individual’s mental health is more important than any sports talent. It doesn’t matter what level you coach at, I believe working with an athlete on issues related to self confidence, self esteem, respect and balance in their life is more important than how physically gifted they are. We may never know the reasons why Belcher committed these acts. But, it reinforces to me that athletes may be in tremendous physical condition, but mentally they may be hurting and in trouble. Perhaps the best lesson that can be learned from this tragedy is to take the time and listen to the athletes you coach. Listen to signs of emotional pain and address them. Don’t ignore them because the young person can run fast, hit a ball a long way or shoot three pointers. Make sure the support is there to help them if they demonstrate that they need it.

How Important Should Sports Be?

This past week, Hurricane Sandy has devastated the eastern part of the United States. As of the writing of this newsletter, millions of people are still without power, thousands have either lost their homes or been forced to evacuate because of damage from the storm, much of the public transit system is still not running, including most of New York’s subway system, and more people are being found either dead or missing on a daily basis. My youngest son is a senior at New York University and has not been able to sleep in his dormitory since Saturday because there is no power in the building. His classes have been cancelled all week. Every night he has had to find somewhere else to sleep and shower with relatives or friends who have electricity. And he feels fortunate.

Yesterday, I heard the news that despite all of the tragedy that has occurred this past week and all of the problems that New York is facing, the famed New York City Marathon will still be held this Sunday. Why? The reasoning I heard was that the over 47,000 runners registered will bring in much needed money to New York and that it will be a much needed distraction to the residents of the city. To me, this is utter arrogance and stupidity. Having volunteered for years on Kansas City’s Hospital Hill half marathon race committee, I know the demands a race like this requires. Streets have to be closed for hours; hundreds of volunteers are needed as well as hundreds of police and paramedics. With the New York community suffering the crisis it has endured over the past week, I cannot understand the rationale behind this decision. Power crews and police and emergency personnel have been working nonstop all week, and now must also be available for a marathon that can take 6 to 7 hours for some to finish. Thousands of runners and their families need lodging, food and transportation to a city that has thousands of residents in crisis. To me this brings up the question I have discussed numerous times on my weekly radio show, just how important should sports be? If you have read my newsletter over the past several years, you know that I feel sports are the greatest discipline to find out about yourself and what you can achieve. Sports bring people, schools and communities together. It CAN be a good distraction from the stressors and issues we face in life on a daily basis. However, when your community is facing a crisis the magnitude that the New York City area is facing, an event like this should not go on. In my opinion, it should either be postponed or cancelled for this year. Sports are an important component of our society. It does bring people together. Over a million fans attended the victory parade this week for the San Francisco Giants after their World Series victory. But, when you still have millions without power, thousands displaced because their homes have either been destroyed or severely damaged, it makes no sense to run a 26.1 mile race through these streets. As I said, sports is important, but having an event like this occurring while the area is going through this crisis to me makes no sense. I would like to hear the rationale from the race organizers and race committee members regarding the reasoning for this decision. I am guessing for them, their motto is, “The games must go on.” Your thoughts.

Cheering an Injury

At a recent Kansas City Chiefs NFL game, an incident occurred that sparked a lot of national attention. The Chiefs starting quarterback, Matt Cassell, who has not played well this year was injured during a play against the Baltimore Ravens. Cassell was knocked hard to the ground and appeared to have a head injury, which was later diagnosed as a concussion. While on the ground, it appeared that numerous fans were cheering about his injury, hoping that the Chiefs would bring in backup quarterback, Brady Quinn, to take Cassell’s place. Quinn did replace Cassell, and after the game for several days the Chiefs fans were criticized for cheering his injury. Immediately after the game, Chiefs offensive tackle, Eric Winston, was interviewed, and stated that he was never more embarrassed to be in a game than to have the fans cheer for a player being injured. He said it was the lowest point of his career as a football player. A few days later, I was at a 13 year old youth soccer game and saw one player get injured on a play. Players on the other team yelled some insulting comments at him while he was down. One young man even made some degrading remarks about the injured player’s toughness. Both of these situations made me think about fans behavior at games and how this behavior is often modeled by younger athletes. Booing at sporting events has always been part of the game experience at the professional, collegiate and high school levels. Usually, it is in response to a penalty by the officials or a poor display of sportsmanship by a player. However, it seems to that not just booing, but showing a lack of respect is now becoming something fans at all games feel is acceptable behavior. I witnessed this watching my two sons, who are now in their early 20’s, play sports through high school and continue to see it get worse as I attend numerous youth sporting events. I believe the major issue comes down to a lack of RESPECT. Young people emulate their role models, usually their parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches and especially professional athletes. I have spoken many times over past newsletters about why I feel sportsmanship needs to be taught and should not only be a priority for the athletes, but for the coaches and parents. Obviously, when a fan pays money for a ticket at a sporting event, they feel they have the right to express themselves, whether by booing or cheering. However, cheering when a player is injured, in my opinion, shows a lack of respect, not just for the injured player but for you as well. I feel coaches at the youth sports level should not just encourage appropriate sportsmanship by their athletes, but by the parents and themselves. As part of their preseason meeting, I believe coaches should discuss the issue of respect, not just for your teammates, but for opponents and officials. Sports should be about the experience of having fun and pushing yourself to see what you can do. It is a much better experience when competitors and fans alike are able to show respect for the performances that are displayed.

Cheating

Over the past month, several stories have been reported about athletes who have been caught cheating. In baseball, San Francisco Giant star outfielder, Melky Cabrera, the MVP of this year’s All Star Game and former Cy Young award winner, Bartolo Colon of the Oakland Athletics, both failed drug tests and were each suspended 50 games by Major League baseball. Both tested positive for excessive levels of testosterone. Each admitted they were guilty, apologized and took their suspensions. In swimming, Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa the gold medalist in the 100 meter breaststroke, admitted he took extra dolphin kicks during his gold medal swim. According to van der Burgh, “If you’re not doing it you’re falling behind. It’s not obviously – shall we say – the moral thing to do, but I’m not willing to sacrifice my personal performance and four years of hard work for someone that is willing to do it and get away with it.” So far, no discipline has been taken against him. Lance Armstrong, the 7 time Tour de France winner, is going to be stripped of his titles and banned for life from cycling because of allegedly taking illegal substances during his career. Armstrong has never tested positive, but has been accused by many former teammates of taking illegal substances to enhance his performance. And finally, at the Scrabble National tournament a 13 year old player was evicted from the tournament after being caught hiding blank letter titles!! WHY is this happening??? Why must athletes at these levels, even a 13 year old feel they must cheat? Obviously, several factors play into this issue, but I think the core of all of it relates to fear and a lack of self confidence. Fear in many areas plays a role. There is a fear of failure, a fear of not living up to expectations of others, and a fear of not being good enough. Van der Burgh stated it very clearly when he said that you are falling behind others if you are not doing it. Why can’t four years of training, pushing yourself to your natural limits be enough? I believe it is because athletes today feel they have to constantly look for an edge that will get them to the top. Our society rewards winners and cheating has become in my opinion, too normal and too accepted. As I talk with athletes, coaches and parents in my practice and on my radio show, it seems that the pressure to win at all costs, now includes cheating as an acceptable behavior. Cabrera and Colon both admitted they cheated and took their punishment, but both made a lot of money doing so. And my guess is that both will probably get signed next year again by another team. So what can we learn from this? I feel it is important to discuss cheating in the context of building self-confidence. I believe that young athletes should be taught that confidence is about the belief that you will succeed and you will fail. No one likes to fail, but it is part of the learning curve in sports and if you teach young athletes to accept this and to not be scared of failure, the need to cheat will hopefully not be as easy to give in to as they progress in their sport. What is your opinion?

Is Average Good Enough?

Recently, I had a conversation with a youth sports coach about the variety of differences in talent and abilities of the 6th grade boys he has been coaching in baseball. He has been their recreational coach since the boys were in 1st grade. He told me that it has been a very frustrating summer for him and his team. The team hasn’t achieved the goals they had set. In fact, they have had a losing season after winning the championship last year. He shared with me that this was the first year there became a glaring difference in the talent levels of the boys. Several of the boys have improved dramatically, while others have stayed at the same level as last year. Many of the boys who have gotten better have spent a lot of time taking private lessons throughout the winter as well as during the season from retired Major League players. The fathers of three of these boys have told the coach that they will probably try out this fall for a competitive team, as they all believe their sons are more talented than the others and want to play at a higher level. One of the fathers even mentioned that he believes his son is talented enough to play in high school and even college. The coach told me that this father is the pushiest parent on the team and is always the most vocal during the games. He stated that this parent was very frustrated with most of the other players because they hadn’t put in the extra time to get better beyond the normal practices.  I asked the coach if he felt the boys had had fun playing this year, even though they had a losing season. He told me that the boys who appeared to have the most fun, were the ones who weren’t pushed by their parents and just appeared to enjoy being on the team. I thought deeply about this discussion and began to wonder just how good is good enough? One of my frustrations as a sport psychologist, is that it appears we are pushing our kids at younger and younger ages to be involved in sports, not just for the fun, but to be better than everyone else. Obviously, there will always be differing levels of talent on any team. There will always be some really good players and some who are barely talented enough to be on the team. Just because a 6th grader is the best on his team, doesn’t mean he will still be playing in high school. At the same time, the worst player on a 6th grade team might get better as he gets older and may be the one who plays in high school and college. I think the most important focus should be on being your best, being the best you can be, and not worrying about comparing yourself to everyone else.

Balance, Burnout and Sports

First of all, I want to emphasize that I love sports. Always have and always will. I am 57 years old and have played sports all of my life and will hopefully be able to participate for the rest of my life. I love the thrill of competing and the excitement of accomplishing a goal on the athletic field. I grew up in a time when organized sports were at day or summer camps and team sports were mostly in schools. There were some summer teams that played baseball and basketball, but most were set up in the school systems. Today, it is totally different. Recreational sports and club sports exist in almost every sport and are year round. They begin at very young ages and continue all the way through high school.
It has gotten to the point now, where if you don’t start specializing in a sport by age 9 or 10, the message to most kids is that you will never be on the best teams or be able to play at the high school level. As time goes on, the more I speak with parents, coaches and athletes, the more I feel we are doing a tremendous disservice to our kids.

Last month, Junior Seau committed suicide. Seau, 43, was a great NFL linebacker for 20 years, having spent most of his time playing for his hometown, San Diego Chargers. Divorced and the father of three children, Seau had been retired for a couple of years. Did he commit suicide because of the effects of concussions? Or was it because football had been his life and he didn’t know what else to do with himself after he retired?

This past week, two fathers both had conversations with me that made me think about how much pressure and emphasis we put on sports for kids. One father, a college soccer coach, told me that his 14 year old son, an excellent club soccer player, asked if it would be OK if he took the fall off from his club soccer team to play high school soccer. The coach and his wife felt like it would be a good thing for their son. They spoke with the club coaches and shared their decision with them. The club coaches got hostile and confrontational and told them they were kicking the young man off the team because he wasn’t staying committed. The father told me that after thinking about how they spend between $12,000 and $15,000 a year on his club soccer, between traveling expenses and club fees, it would be fine to take the fall off and play on his high school team. After listening to the responses from the club coaches, he knew they had made the correct decision. As a college coach, he said if it isn’t fun in high school, it would never be fun in college. Another father spoke with me about his 12 year old daughter’s club volleyball experience. This weekend, they were leaving for a 4 day tournament out of town, that would end up costing over $1200 in traveling fees and tournament costs. He asked me if I thought it was worth it. I asked him if he could afford it. He said yes, but he spent $16,000 last year on his daughter’s volleyball expenses. I asked him if his daughter was having fun. He wasn’t sure if she was anymore. I then told him I thought they should have a family discussion about it. He told me she didn’t participate in any other activities because of the demands of the team. I talked with him about getting burned out and not having time to be a kid. He said they were going to have a long talk about this on the drive back home after the tournament. Having balance in your life is essential for everyone. For kids, I think the most important thing is to be a kid. If sports become all too consuming and become the be all end all in your child’s life, you may not be exposing them to all of the keys to becoming a successful person. Having fun, enjoying the experience, making friends and learning about yourself are in my opinion, what youth sports should be about. The winning and losing are part of it, but should be way down the list in terms of importance.